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Ellen Weber Libby, Ph.D.
Ellen Weber Libby Ph.D.

The Black Swan: A Lesson in Parent/Child Relationships

Parenting: When good intentions backfire.

It is that time of the year when pundits speculate about who will win Academy Awards. Movies examining mother/daughter relationships are often contenders, and this year is no exception. Natalie Portman, the star of Black Swan, is favored by pundits for her brilliant portrayal of Nina, a driven young dancer whose struggle to realize her ultimate potential threatens her entwined relationship with her mother.

Confronted by the ballet company's artistic director, Nina faces the harsh truth that, in spite of her perfect technique, she will not achieve greatness unless her dance conveys more passion. And so, Nina experiments with living her life with more passion, believing this will translate to her dance. Her altered life style creates tension in her relationship with her mother, which is the relationship that anchors her life. Can Nina's relationship with her mother endure if Nina taps in to her own passion against her mother's resistance? And if this relationship does not endure, can both mother and daughter survive?

Nina's story is that of a child identified by a powerful parent to live out that parent's unrealized dream. The parent's ambition, cloaked in what is in the child's best interest, seduces the child into a gratifying relationship with the parent, one in which the child is indulged as the favorite. Ultimately, this relationship limits the child's emotional growth and personal development.

While the content of Black Swan is that of a ballet dancer, the story mirrors that of children who grow up pressured to live out their parents' dreams, as athletes, artists, scholars, or musicians. These children, like Nina, struggle to establish their own identities, an identity distinct and separate from their parents. Some children succeed but many, fail succumbing to depression, anxiety, addictions, and some, like Nina, death.

Movie viewers experience Erica, Nina's mother, as a tragic figure. It is inferred that Erica's career was thwarted by her unexpected pregnancy with Nina and that Erica's emotional life had not progressed beyond that experience. The viewer wonders if, as an aspiring ballerina, Erica knew her career was going no where and becoming pregnant provided an "out"; or if the pregnancy interrupted Erica's career and so she clung to her baby in an attempt to turn her ruined career in to a life's mission.

Whichever, Nina embodies her mother's hopes and dreams, and their identities are fused. Nina is a vessel holding her mother's wishes and desires, as do many favorite children. It is up to Nina to fulfill her mother's dream. The experiences of the journey - the successes and failures - are jointly shared; their lives are inseparable. Nina's successes are THEIR successes, Erica feeling the joy as if it were her own. Nina's failures are theirs' as well, Erica holding the disappointment as if it were her own

Erica has devoted her life to protecting her daughter from making the mistakes she did and to succeeding as a ballerina as she did not. Having lived a life carefully orchestrated by her mother, Nina's life experiences hindered her psychological growth. Interestingly, it is this sheltered life that has precluded Nina's ability to dance with passion.

The viewer is uncomfortable in witnessing Erica's behavior: she rubs Nina's back as one would an infant; she works to preserve the childish décor of Nina's bedroom, a room filled with stuffed animals usually cherished by young children. Nina's birthday celebration is about Erica, celebrating the occasion as Erica envisioned and not as Nina desires.

There are varied psychological perspectives that describe the dynamics enacted in the movie: The mother/daughter relationship could be described as fused or symbiotic; the mother's personality could be described as narcissistic or borderline; and the daughter's personality could be described as self-mutilating, depressed, or arrested psychological development. Regardless, the parent/child relationship dramatized in Black Swan illustrates the potential damage inflicted on both child and parent by the most destructive forces of favoritism that can be experienced in some parent/child relationships - a child robbed of psychological maturity and sentenced to a life of self-destructive expression in the interest of maintaining favorite child status.

The Black Swan poignantly illustrates Nina's struggle to tap into her own passion and to forge an identity separate from her mother's, both of which are necessary to succeed as a ballerina as well as in life. The viewer experiences the tension of this separation wondering if either can survive the break-up, if either can live a life independent of one another. Parents' hopes and dreams for their children can provide children with resources necessary for success, but when overdone, the consequences can be devastating.

About the Author
Ellen Weber Libby, Ph.D.

Dr. Ellen Weber Libby, a clinical psychologist, is a psychotherapist in Washington, DC, and is the author of The Favorite Child (January 2010.)

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